Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Exorcist (1973)

USA, 122 minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: William Peter Blatty
Photography: Owen Roizman
Music: Jack Nitzsche, Mike Oldfield
Editors: Norman Gay, Evan A. Lottman
Cast: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Rudolf Schundler, Vasiliki Maliaros

I intended to have momentous or at least interesting things to say about horror movies approximately here, but often the scary pictures I've looked at in the past year have left me cold, and rarely frightened me. Maybe I should have looked in more unexpected places, such as the driving safety films we were shown in high school—they might still be scary, or certainly as gruesome as ever, I would think. The two movies that most gave me pause to revisit, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (both of which still retain the power to disturb), explicitly have nothing to do with the supernatural—like those driving safety films, come to think of it. But the supernatural has everything to do with The Exorcist, a movie that scarred me when I saw it on its original release (twice, foolishly, unbelieving of its power on me after the first time).

This reminds me of a story I used to like to tell, about a church youth retreat when I was in high school. As I recall, it was an overnight canoe trip. On the night over, a group of five or so of us stayed up late gabbing at a campfire. At some point we started swapping ghost stories and such. At some point we decided it would be fun to have a séance. We had a medium among us and people who knew the mumbo jumbo. We held hands and looked nervously around while someone recited the mumbo jumbo. We decided that our means of communication—admittedly ambivalent, but the best we could do in the circumstances—would be to make an ember glow that we pulled from the fire and stuck upright in the sand. Once for no, twice for yes. Being idiots we summoned the spirit of Adolf Hitler (to her credit, the medium did not approve). Things like this take some tinkering but finally we were pretty sure we had a spirit on the line and that it was our man. I asked if he really thought he could take over the world. The ember made a little popping noise and burst into flame.

The next several hours are the most frightened I think I have ever been so I realize on some level I am also confessing here to being superstitious, which is fair enough, also in light of my experience with The Exorcist (which I think it's also fair to say is widely regarded as the scariest movie ever made, by the way, so it's not like I'm a weirdo or anything on this, although fundamentalist Christians who likely swell the ranks of those finding it so scary are notably superstitious, which weakens my case). The incident on the beach scared all of us pretty badly that night, and it was very late, past 3 a.m., and we made our excuses and crawled off to tents shortly after. We did spend some time corroborating details such as the general windlessness of the night, agreed it was more likely some low-level malevolent spirit playing tricks, if not something that just naturally occurred with the wood of the burning branch fragment, laughed nervously, wished we hadn't done it. Some said so even that night, as I recall. Some never did it again. The medium thereafter also adopted firm policies about who could be called on in her séances. Going back to my tent alone that night, feeling powerless in the face of extraordinary irrational powers, which lasted until daylight because of course I couldn't sleep (and several years or decades after in more benign form), is an experience I have never forgotten, and it is the feeling I most connected with again in The Exorcist. It is not a fun feeling to have.

After those bad times seeing The Exorcist in the mid-'70s, I avoided horror movies generally, and The Exorcist specifically, for a long time. When I finally came to see it again in the late '90s I was very wary and asked a couple of friends to watch with me. At that time I found the movie had lost virtually all its power, though I attended closely to an accompanying documentary made at the time that recounted all the really weird stuff that happened during the production (a version of me on that beach listening to ghost stories)—nine people who worked on it were dead before it was released, for example, including one key member of the cast (Jack MacGowran, at age 54), and a fire destroyed the set at one point, so on so forth. I wrote about The Exorcist a few years ago for another project (see here), but the question remains. What exactly is so scary? I'm open-minded about an afterlife, but skeptical about all religions, and I certainly don't believe in hell or the devil. Nor was I ever much exposed to Catholic theology, which is what The Exorcist is riffing on, albeit within a confusing post-Vatican II liberalized frame. I wasn't much exposed to that either. What I was exposed to was a middlebrow midcentury liberal Protestant church where you could have séances on the youth outings.

Interestingly, The Exorcist almost seems boring now, mired in self-conscious late Nixon tones. It would make a good double feature with The Ice Storm (for which it is almoxt an anagram), except possibly for the 15 or 20 minutes of loud, grotesque footage, as ugly as ever. I was surprised last time I saw The Exorcist by how little of it is actually occupied by the Satanic jim-jams. And most of that has lost its punch. The scene where Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) are confronting the corrupted body of Regan floating above their heads, repeatedly shouting in unison at the top of their lungs, "The power of Christ compels you," had once overwhelmed me—shocked and numbed by the just-previous head twisting effect in its full glory, plunged into an ocean of fear and no escape from the irrational power. Now it reminds me more of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, repeating in soothing tones, "It's not your fault."

Maybe I am letting a note of scorn enter? It's no cheapie exploitation picture. I want to be clear on that. The Exorcist is an A film—yes, an exploitation picture, but an A film. It's made well, it works well, it is unrelenting about what it is, and it has a happy ending. There's a surprising amount of restraint to it too. I respect the hell out of it. The scorn I express now is an inevitable luxury I am taking of despising something that once terrified me and no longer does.

As for the question of what is so scary, I would now like to try an answer, based on my recent experiences with Henry, Texas Chain Saw, and The Exorcist, among many others, and that is to point once again to this quote from Fritz Lang (best seen on the YouTube video here, a clip that also appears in Martin Scorsese's 1995 tribute to midcentury American cinema): "Violence has become in my opinion a definite point in the script. It has a dramaturgical reason to be there. You see, I don't think that people believe in the devil, with the horns and the forked tail. And therefore they don't believe in punishment after they are dead. So my question was ... what are people fearing? ... And that is physical pain. And physical pain comes from violence. And that, I think, is today the only fact which people really fear, and therefore it has become a definite part of life, and naturally also of scripts."

It's the violence, for those of us skeptical about religion. For believers, it is the violence, but much worse it is the irrational made manifest—made undeniable. It's superstition in its rawest form, turned into magic reality before our eyes. The scariest element in The Exorcist is the head twisting, because it is impossible. Similarly, the scariest element in The Blair Witch Project occurs on the day when the characters, who are lost in the woods, use their compass to walk south all day and then return to the place where they started. That is impossible. Freddy Krueger attacks in dreams. The very blood of the alien in Alien is so caustic it almost burns through the hulls of space-going craft—but that's getting into science fiction (the particular genius of that movie). Perhaps the pleasure of watching horror movies, then, is one I mentioned elsewhere: the pleasure of rehearsing a confrontation with your deepest fears and surviving. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or some shit. When horror movies don't work on that level they can incidentally become very funny very often. But to the larger point, I agree that the grotesqueries wear thin, camp is never an automatic gimme, and horror movies should always be approached with caution.

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